Much of the country spent the summer teetering on the edge of disaster and uncertainty, as we navigated a tightrope between bad news and could-be-worse news. Hurricane Ida pummeled New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in late August—making landfall on the same day as Katrina did 16 years ago. Two dozen people died, but the levees held, and the storm was not as catastrophic as feared. Then Ida took a swerve to the Northeast and brought such torrential rainfall and epic flooding—a record-setting 3.15 inches in one hour in New York’s Central Park—that more than 50 people drowned in their cars on New Jersey roads and in basement apartments across New York City.
Add to that the raging California wildfires and the extraordinary heat dome over the Pacific Northwest, which baked about 100 people in their own homes, and we can see that the calamities brought about by the climate crisis are no longer rare. According to an article in The Washington Post in early September, one in three Americans live in a county “hit by a weather disaster in the last three months.” A report just released by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization leaves no doubt that extreme weather has increased around the globe over the last 50 years—with the silver lining that advanced warning systems have led to fewer deaths than in the past (but property and economic damage are far more severe).
And then there is the pandemic. For a brief moment of summer bliss, vaccinated Americans felt almost carefree, but the looming Delta variant led to new precautions and a hesitancy about returning to normal (whatever normal was). Schools now are largely back in session—albeit with safeguards and restrictions—but many workplaces have postponed a full return from September to as late as 2022. As we reported last month, architecture firms tend to take a flexible attitude toward when or how staff must come back to the office. Yet for many architects, 18 months of remote work has only highlighted that something essential has been missing. Thomas Bercy of the Austin-based Bercy Chen Studio told RECORD, “Architecture is a creative profession. We feel that in-person interaction is critical to the sharing of ideas, drawings, and communication in general.”
As we enter autumn, there is a slow dawning of the realization that we are no longer living in a state of emergency but are living in a future reality where the only certainty is unpredictability, with ever more urgent questions that need thoughtful but rapid responses.
Some of those questions expose the fault lines of privilege and inequity. Marginalized communities, for example, have been more vulnerable to weather disasters, according to many accounts. Poverty was why people were living illegally in New York basements and died as Ida’s floodwaters surged.
Similarly, Covid has demonstrated the vast differences between those who can work where and how they wish, with access to the best health care, and those with few options. The pandemic has also emphasized that public health is a collective concern, and that policies on vaccination and masks are essential for people to be safe at work and in public, and to slowing the spread of the disease and keeping society and the economy going.
The summer’s weather disasters bolstered the president’s call to confront the climate crisis and advance his goal of net zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. “The nation and the world are in peril,” he said last month. “And that’s not hyperbole.” His major infrastructure bill originally allocated 40 percent of its environmental and climate benefits to underserved communities, though how that will be reconciled in both houses of Congress is not yet clear.
Whether those ambitious goals can be reached, extreme weather is already here, and now is the time to design for the predictably unpredictable future. As New Orleans architect David Waggonner said in RECORD’S September issue, his city needs less of the conventional infrastructure to avoid overwhelming flooding and a more progressive reimagining of how to confront storms, such as the expansive water gardens he has championed. “We have to let gravity and nature work,” he says.
That kind of design—questioning, researching, and rethinking—is giving architects and engineers an outsize role in planning and building for the uncertainty that all of us now face.